Jets players respond to head coach: 'I didn't agree with how he handled himself'

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WINNIPEG — Head coach Rick Bowness was the target of some criticism by his players after the Winnipeg Jets had exit meetings Saturday and packed their bags for the off-season.

Veteran forward Blake Wheeler told reporters he didn’t like the assessment Bowness gave media after the Jets were eliminated from the first round of the playoffs with a 4-1 loss in Game 5 Thursday against the Vegas Golden Knights.

“I think he could have been honest with us,” Wheeler said. “We could have had those discussions behind closed doors. So I didn't agree with how he handled himself after that game.”

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Asked for his take, goalie Connor Hellebuyck replied, “Yeah, he said it perfectly,” referring to Wheeler sitting beside him.

Bowness, who just finished his first year behind the team’s bench, had been brief and blunt after the Western Conference loss that pitted the eighth-seeded Jets against the No. 1 Golden Knights.

"I’m so disappointed and disgusted right now, that’s my thoughts," Bowness said in Las Vegas.

"No pushback. But it’s the same (stuff) we saw in February. It was. As soon as we were challenging for first place and teams were coming after us, we had no pushback. This series we had no pushback. Their better players were so much better than ours, it’s not even close."

Wheeler was asked if Bowness’s comments would be difficult to get past.

“He’s a person, too, so we don't expect him to be perfect all the time, and people make mistakes,” Wheeler said. “Those conversations are best had face-to-face. There's certainly healing that can happen, for sure.”

Wheeler was stripped of his captaincy before training camp began in favour of a three-alternate group of Adam Lowry, Josh Morrissey and Mark Scheifele.

After 14 players met with the media Saturday, Bowness had his turn and said he had harsh words with his players after the second period. He admitted his post-game description of being disgusted was probably too strong of a word.

“One of my many faults is that I'm too emotional and that I wear my heart on my sleeve,” Bowness said. “That being said, I criticize myself for the choice of words.

“The message, the clear message, is one that I will never accept that kind of an effort in a game like that.”

He had called out some unnamed players’ efforts and personal pride during the season and said he’s not about to change.

“I’m going to coach the way I want to coach,” Bowness said. “I still have to be blunt. I still have to be honest. There's not going to be any grey area.”

The Jets sat atop the Western Conference in mid-January before starting a slide. They only grabbed the second wild-card spot in Game 81 and finished 46-33-3.

The team was hit by injuries before and during the playoffs.

Nikolaj Ehlers was hurt in the playoff-clinching game and missed the first four games of the series against Vegas. All-star defenceman Morrissey was injured (lower body) in Game 3 and didn’t return. Top goal-scorer Scheifele went out in Game 4 with an upper-body injury and never suited up again.

Morrissey and Scheifele didn’t give details of their injuries, but both said they wouldn’t compete in the upcoming world championship. Ehlers said he wants to play in the tournament in Finland and Latvia in mid-May.

Scheifele is one of four core players whose contract situation could spark the Jets to make big changes for next season. He, Hellebuyck and Wheeler each have a year left on their current deals and could become unrestricted free agents in the summer of 2024.

Centre Pierre-Luc Dubois is a restricted free agent, coming off a one-year contract. He could ink another one-year deal and become a UFA. Rumours have swirled for a long time that he wants to play in his home province of Quebec for the Montreal Canadiens.

All four said they haven’t given much thought about their futures.

“I just want to win a (Stanley) Cup,” Hellebuyck said. “I don't know what the future of this team's going to look like.

“I don't know what their plans are, and I don't know if I'm in it, to be honest. I'm not sure what they're thinking. As far as I'm concerned, I'm going to give everything wherever I am.”

Team brass could decide to blow up the roster and head into a rebuild.

“I don’t think anybody in that locker room wants to be part of a rebuild. Or anybody, in general,” said winger Kyle Connor, who led the Jets in points (80) this season. “Everybody wants to play for a Stanley Cup-contending team.”

Bowness, 68, who had some health problems after contracting COVID-19 at the start of the season, has one more year on his contract. He said the team did a lot of good things during the season and he wants to continue making progress. He’s even open to sticking around if it’s a rebuild.

“I love the city. I love the passion. I love the fans we have,” Bowness said. “It’s a good group of guys to work with. It’s a great organization.”

Those were words Ehlers could agree with.

“We have a fantastic group of guys in here, off the ice. Some really good hockey players,” Ehlers said.

“So, obviously, we haven’t been exactly where have wanted to be the last couple of years. We want to be better, and we want the chance to be better.”

Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff will meet with the media on Sunday.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 29, 2023.

Judy Owen, The Canadian Press

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